Dinosaur Jr. will always have a special place in my collection. Where You Been was the record that introduced me to the wonderful world of indie rock. Without it, I might never have sought out Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted or the Flaming Lips' Hit to Death in the Future Head. "Out There," the opening track, still qualifies as one of the most amazing songs produced in the early '90s. My jaw literally dropped the first time I heard it. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sounds like a pathetic whimper next to it.
What set Dinosaur Jr. apart from the legions of college slacker indie types was J Mascis's extraordinarily gifted guitar playing. No one could pull off a more natural sounding two-minute solo. However, this same proficiency was also what kept him a perpetual outsider, a pariah of a genre that prided itself on amateurishness. Unlike, say, Stephen Malkmus, you got the feeling that Mascis wasn't playing indie rock because that was the extent of his skill, but rather because he genuinely enjoyed the sound. So Mascis spent most of his career on the fringe, too flashy for indie purists and too quirky for mainstream success.
Dinosaur Jr. said goodbye in 1997 with Hand It Over, arguably Mascis's strongest effort since Where You Been. But the retirement of the name turned out to be nothing more than that. Mascis returned a short two years later on a new label (Artemis) as J Mascis + the Fog. But the old sound remained essentially intact. That album, More Light, proved that Mascis still had some creative juice left, even if half of it was less inspired than usual. It probably didn't hurt that Bob Pollard and Kevin Shields were on hand in the studio to offer their expertise.
Unfortunately, the creative spark seems to be entirely absent from Mascis's second post-Dinosaur project, Free So Free, a concept album loosely based on Mascis's newfound love of skydiving. Whatever joy he's currently experiencing from his new hobby apparently did not provide much in the way of musical inspiration, as Free So Free is easily the dullest album in the Mascis catalog. For the first time, the solos sound tacked on rather than logical extensions of the riffs. Mascis's voice, which was never a strong point, is needlessly pushed to the front of the mix. And worst of all, the songs go by with hardly any acknowledgement of beginnings and ends.
Mascis is still far too good a musician to be disregarded entirely, but he's treading closer to irrelevance than ever before. Certainly no way for a guitar hero to go.